Routine Orienteering, by Eoin Rothery

Talk given at Shamrock Sessions, Kilcrohane Community Hall, 5th June 2011

In Orienteering we repeatedly have to find control flags – we should employ a routine process to that activity. If we make it a habit then even when we get tired there will be something to fall back on. Some people will do better by treating each control as an individual, and there is something to this as every leg is different. However, most of us will be better off with a tried and true process that works most of the time. We need to have a reliable process that gets us safely and without undue hesitation to every control. So what elements should there be in it? Any complex activity is better approached by breaking it down into simple steps. Lets examine the basics:

Time Loss

Orienteering, in its popular competitive form, is a time trial and given a certain level of fitness, one of the main elements should be to reduce time loss. There are three main areas where you can lose time: mistakes, route choice and slow technique ie having to stop all the time to read the map or set bearings. In some ways these are all inter-related - if you choose an easy track route you can minimise the map reading stops and if it is safer you can reduce your risk of mistakes. However, for your routine the most important area of time loss is mistakes. This is our hare v tortoise sport – the hare runs too fast to read the map properly and stuffs up. The second most important to address in your routine is slow technique and this mainly comes about because you run ahead of yourself and have to stop, or slow down, to find out what where you have gone. To avoid this you have to develop the ability to predict where you are going and what to do next, when you get there. Route choice is not that important if you get the other two right, certainly you should concentrate on them first.

Direction and Distance

Direction is the most important basic element of finding a control. The shorter the leg is, the more important it is to get on the correct direction early. The flatter and faster the terrain the more likely it is that straight will be best. Your routine should include lots of checks of your compass. To a large extent distance can be gauged during the leg by checking features along the way with the map. However there are some times when you need to be able to estimate distance more precisely by pacing.


You will not find controls quickly without looking at the map, in fact you might not find them at all. However, it is surprising to see just how many people do not actually read the map, or look at it without absorbing important detail. Most time loss in orienteering is due to people not seeing the essential detail on the map – give yourself more time for this vital task. Most legs can be broken down into a few simple elements – essentially get to the big features along the way, and from the last easy big feature (the attack point) read the map carefully into the control.

Route Choice

Basically route choice comes down to: which of the big features near the control (attack points) gives me the safest approach? And then, which big features do I find along the way to get to that last one? Note – route choice for longer legs should rarely be a direct attack on the control – the control feature will generally be more difficult to find than a bigger something near it. Any large deviation from the straight line should have benefits (save height, better running or easier navigation), and it is rarely a good idea to cross the straight line during the leg as this adds distance.


Of all the features on the map these are the most helpful. Vegetation changes and termite mounds grow or rot, but contours stay the same. Rock detail can’t be shown with the same precision as contours and you can always work out what sort of slope you are on and what way you are facing (very useful for relocation). In route choice its important to know whether, overall, you have to ascend, descend or maintain height relative to the next control point. This can help your decision between different routes (but be wary of clever setters who make the best route an immediate steep ascent out of the control – tired orienteers just don’t want to climb!).

Go! (or Stop!)

So once you have decided what direction and what route you can set off – this means either you should still be standing at the control, or you have decided that prior to getting to it. This idea of not going somewhere without a plan applies to all the big features along the way and most especially to the attack point.

Attack Point

Before you leave here you should have examined the detail within the circle (and that includes any detail hidden below the circle line itself) and ideally created a mental picture of the flag at the feature. Looking at the description before the circle detail will help build that picture. You should by now also know the code. Most people will do better by remembering only the code and description of the next control. There is too much room for confusion by trying to remember more than one – and it should be the right one. Once you have left the attack point the only thing you should be thinking of is your fine navigation to the flag. You should not be looking at the next leg, people around you, or the view (leave that for the next time you collect controls or set a course). This will be the slowest part of the leg – walk or stop if you have to, as it is better to go straight to it slowly than speed past it and have to relocate. If you have time before the attack point, then look at the next leg and choose the route, or at least the way out of the control – if you can do this so as to keep going through controls this is “control flow”.


Compass!, Up or Down?, Attack Point?, Big Feature Route?


Where (ie what big feature) am I heading?

What do I do when I get there? 


Slow down 

Code, Description, Map Detail, Way out. 

Now you just have to train yourself to do it again and again so it becomes routine!